Jesus and the Roman Empire have plenty of things in common. Without the Roman Empire there would have been neither Jesus nor Christianity. Both Jesus and the Roman Empire arrived at about the same time. The impoverished Jewish boy, Jesus, grew up in an Israel that was an obscure province of the Roman Empire.
Some scholars say Jesus was not a historical person. Jewish preachers concocted the entire Biblical and New Testament tradition and Jesus from extremely ancient Egyptian myths.
But a vociferous Christian theological tribe argues Jesus was real. He grew up in Nazareth of Galilee. He went for baptism to John the Baptist. He then returned to Galilee where he started his preaching career.
If Jesus existed, he must have been saying and doing controversial things. He was a magician performing miracles. He also spoke like a prophet, issuing warnings on the coming of the end of the world. He won men disciples and made enemies. Those enemies convinced the Romans to crucify him.
The death of Jesus was the beginning of Christ: the anointed one, the son of the Jewish god who rose from the dead. These exaggerations rose sharply decades after Jesus' death. The mythologized Jesus moved from a miracle worker to the superhero of Christianity. The Evangelist Mark and Luke made that possible.
Mark lived in late first century of our era. Luke lived in early second century. This was an era when Greek thought mattered. The Roman Empire had absorbed not merely political Greece but its civilization.
Homer was the hallmark of that civilization. Homer defined the identity of the Greeks. Greek children and children of non-Greeks drank from the lips of Homer. They learned Greek and mastered the myths of gods and heroes. Homer provided a rich vocabulary, an even richer catalogue of allusions of human and divine behavior, and, for a strategist like Alexander the Great, a manual of warfare.
Writers who wanted to be read always had the Iliad and Odyssey in mind. Mimesis of Homer -- not plagiarism but deep understanding of his style and stories -- was key to their success.
Mark and Luke put that truth to work for the uplifting of Jesus in their Gospels, giving him all the assets of the Greek superheroes and even gods. Their Jesus walked on water like the Greek gods. In fact, this mythologized Jesus was more powerful than the Greek gods who never claimed they created the cosmos. Jesus did.
Mark and Luke mythologized Jesus not because they loved Homer or the Greeks. On the contrary, like all aspiring Christians, they despised the Greek "idolaters" and loathed the Greek gods. But Mark and Luke put their biases away and constructed attractive texts that, to their contemporaries, sounded like stories out of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Mark and Luke also took advantage of the Romans' mimesis of Homer, especially the Aeneid of Vergil. The Aeneid was a poem about Aenias, son of the Greek goddess Aphrodite and the Trojan Anchises. After Troy fell to the Greeks, Aenias led the surviving Trojans to Italy for a new beginning. Vergil shaped his epic poem on the model of Homer. Imitations from the Odyssey appear in the first six books, and mimesis of the Iliad dominates the remaining six books of the Aeneid.
The first Roman Emperor Augustus loved the Aeneid. Virgil became the national poet of the Romans.
So Mark and Luke read the best Greek and Roman literature for boosting their fictional creation: Jesus.
We are fortunate that Dennis R. MacDonald, expert on New Testament and Christian origins, has spent thirty years of his life documenting Greek influence on the Gospels. He summarized his erudition and passion for Homer in "Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero" (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015). This book is a rare treat. It breams with knowledge of Homer, the Gospels, and early Christian writings.
MacDonald says Greek-speaking Christian writers down to the ninth century noticed the similarities between Jesus and the Greek gods and heroes. But he focuses on the architects of those similarities, Mark and Luke. He often gives summaries of revealing statements in the Iliad and Odyssey, putting then next to similar statements in the gospels. The Christian imitation of the Greek original is startling.
MacDonald says the Evangelists "injected" Jesus "with narrative steroids to let him compete with the mythological heroes of Greeks and Romans."
The experience of reading MacDonald is uplifting. First, even when Rome was the master of the world, Homer and the Greeks were unrivalled in the influence they exercised among the educated class. Even the early Christians, who made the destruction of Greek culture the center of their agenda, read and imitated Homer.
Second, McDonald's book demythologizes Jesus. He says most of the stories about Jesus are fictions, "they never happened." So he urges twenty-first century Christians to read the fictional Gospels with "critical honesty and historical humility." "People don't walk on water, multiply bag lunches to feed thousands... or vanish into clouds after their deaths," he writes.
MacDonald's heart is with the stories of Homer, how they decorated a new religion with notions of greatness, and largely unknown to the Christians, how they gave all the power and assets of the Greek heroes to their own superhero, Jesus.
MacDonald ends his book with a telling story. For a week he read his young son stories from Homer and stories from the Gospels, always comparing them. He then asked his son "which myths he liked better, the Greek or the Christian. His response was immediate and unequivocal: 'The Greek, of course.' Although I was teaching at a Christian seminary, I had to agree with him."
Read "Mythologizing Jesus." It is courageous, refreshing and timely. It unearths a huge truth and breaks ground in scholarship and theology.